In 1913, the Milwaukee common council passed an ordinance placing limits on the length of hat pin allowed within city limits. Specifically prohibited were an “Exposed point protruding more than one-half inch beyond the crown of the hat (unless) … the exposed point is covered with a guard.” If a lady’s hat pin exceeded the legal limit, she was subject to arrest and might be fined as much as a dollar. (The equivalent of $23 today.)
Local newspapers had a great deal of fun with this. The Milwaukee Sentinel asked, “Will the police stretch a tent over Milwaukee and arrest every woman therein who wear a hat?” The same article sarcastically wondered what the city was coming to when women who wear pins protruding five-eighths of an inch from the crown of their hats are not apprehended.
Perhaps there was cause for concern. In January 1913, the Milwaukee Journal reported Henry Pritkin of 1916 Cold Spring Ave., was a passenger on a very crowded streetcar. Each time the car lurched he bumped into a seated woman described as “beautifully dressed and looking petite and dainty.”
She didn’t like being jostled. Neither did Mr. Pritkin but he couldn’t do anything about it.
Suddenly, the newspaper said, after Pritkin had fallen against her yet again, she rose, unsheathed her hat pin, and dramatically sprang at him. “If you do that again I’ll run this through you!” she exclaimed.
Pritkin protested that he was not purposely bumping into her. “That makes no difference,” she retorted. “You stay here” – indicating a spot – “or you’ll get this pin in you.”
At this point the woman became aware she had the undivided attention of an entire streetcar load of people. Blushing bright red, she sat down and got out at the next stop.
Certainly the pins could be useful in time of need. In 1909, a 25-year-old machinist named Fred Hoelzer attempted “unwelcome advances” on Mrs. Alice Bohan, who responded by deploying her hat pin and chasing her would-be assailant several blocks. He was arrested, found guilty (of the crime of “mashing”), and sentenced to six months.
Although the city′s hat-pin law was widely mocked at the time, and is still occasionally cited in lists of weird local ordinances, one expert put the matter in perspective. In a 1929 Milwaukee Journal article describing changing fashions in headwear, local hat manufacturer Henry P. Neubert said, “It was a necessary ordinance. Why, some of those hat pins were 12 inches long. People were injured by them; some had an eye put out when a lady suddenly turned her head.”
Hat pins have been out of fashion for a century but if they make a return, the women of Milwaukee may wear them without worry. In 1982, the common council abolished a number of obsolete ordinances, this one included.